US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) Commander, General John Kelly
By Caribbean News Now contributor
WASHINGTON, USA -- General John Kelly, commander of US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), has repeated an earlier warning that Islamic extremists leaving the Caribbean to join the international terrorist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the Middle East could return to commit acts of terror in the region.
Kelly told reporters at the Pentagon on Friday that about 150 Islamic extremists left the Caribbean to join ISIS last year, about 50 more than in the previous year. However, he added, the biggest threat might not be the extremists who leave to train and fight with ISIS, but the ones who stay behind.
These would-be attackers largely come from former British colonies in the Caribbean region and some have been killed fighting for ISIS, said Kelly, a former combat commander in Iraq who will retire later this month.
He said he has seen a shift in extremist leaders’ rhetoric toward these few “very, very radical mosques” to direct their attacks from their homes, rather than attempt the increasingly difficult journey to Iraq or Syria.
Kelly noted that Islamic extremist groups seem to have a new message for would-be jihadists.
"And that [message] is, 'Rather than coming here to Syria, why don't you just stay at home and do San Bernardino or do Boston or do Fort Hood?’ ” the general said, referring to attacks in the US perpetrated by Muslims sympathetic to extremist groups.
Kelly told the Senate Armed Services Committee last year that those who are radicalized enough to leave their homes in the Caribbean to participate in the current conflict in the Middle East would return with greater terrorism skills and motivations and that it would be relatively easy for those terrorists to "walk" north to the US border along the same networks through South and Central America used to traffic drugs and humans.
“If they went over radicalized, one would expect they’d come back at least that radicalized,” he reiterated on Friday.
“Even just a few of these nuts can cause an awful lot of trouble down in the Caribbean because they [Caribbean nations] don’t have an FBI, they don’t have law enforcement like we do. And many of these countries have very, very small militaries – if they have militaries at all,” he said on Friday.
Kelly pointed out last year that Americans “take for granted” the nation’s functioning legal system, agencies like the FBI and the layers of uncorrupt law enforcement that can monitor and track potential terrorists in the United States.
“A lot of these countries just don’t have that,” he noted previously, naming Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Suriname and Venezuela, in particular.
According to security experts, extremists could exploit those countries’ relatively open borders with the US and Canada and have also expressed concern over a possible attack within the Caribbean against Westerners.
More than ten million Americans visited the Caribbean and Central America in 2014, according to statistics from the US Department of Commerce.
Kelly told the Senate Armed Services Committee last year that SOUTHCOM has insufficient airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets available in the area.
Answering a question about how much SOUTHCOM knows what’s going on in the Caribbean that it can’t really stop because of limited assets in the region, Kelly said, “I don’t have the assets [in the Caribbean]. I have two navy ships right now, that will go to zero for ever by the summer and that’s not even with sequestration.”
Although the US Coast Guard had made a commitment to double the number of Coast Guard cutters in the region, Kelly pointed out that this represents an increase from just three to six.
US security agencies appear to be equally frustrated.
"It is correct to assume that US policymakers do not understand or could simply be ignoring such a growing threat to the security of North America,” commented a senior intelligence official in Washington at the time.